She moved against one of the most powerful school superintendents in the nation – and won. She championed the rights of Latino students while running afoul of the teachers' union.
Now Hillsborough County School Board member Susan Valdes is seeking a new title: State legislator.
On Friday, Valdes submitted the irrevocable resignation letter required before she can run for the House of Representatives. Her letter said her resignation takes effect "on Nov. 6, 2018, the date upon which I will assume the office of Florida House of Representatives, District 62."
This means there will be four School Board elections and a likely power shift on the often-fractious body that governs the nation's eighth largest school district. It also means a major race has suddenly developed in the previously quiet West Tampa/Town 'n' Country state House District 62.
Valdes, 53, is best known of the Democratic candidates. She is expected to get support from the current seat holder, term-limited Rep. Janet Cruz, and Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez, who formerly held the seat. As outgoing House minority leader, Cruz could swing party leadership support.
Still, Valdes will face a primary battle on Aug. 28. The other Democrats are marijuana rights and political activist Chris Cano; party activist and construction company executive Michael Alvarez. The group, until Monday, also included Alicia Campos, a social entrepreneur and teaching artist. Campos, however, announced she is withdrawing from the race – not because of Valdes, she said, but because she wants to devote more time to her nonprofit work in West Tampa. She's throwing her support to Alvarez.
Cruz, meanwhile, is challenging Republican Dana Young in the Florida Senate.
No-party candidate Jason Alan Stuber filed April 25, but has reported no fundraising. No Republican has filed in the heavily Democratic and Hispanic district. If Stuber or any other non-Democrat qualifies in the race, including write-ins, then only registered Democrats will be allowed to vote in the primary, possibly helping the party activist candidates.
Valdes was first elected to the School Board in 2004, not long before MaryEllen Elia was promoted to superintendent.
The two clashed, with Valdes sometimes complaining that she was frozen out by Elia's supporters on the board. Despite her isolation, Valdes advocated for under-served students at the three high schools in her district; Leto, Alonso and Jefferson. Her efforts led to a districtwide practice of helping students take multiple competency tests so they will have a better shot at earning diplomas.
In January of 2015, Valdes, then chairwoman, put a motion on the board agenda that led to Elia's 4-3 firing. She was one of four members who, months later, selected Jeff Eakins to take Elia's place.
Valdes faced a tough challenge in her 2016 re-election campaign from former principal and administrator Bill Person, who came within 1.5 percentage points of defeating her. Person and his wife, teacher Laurie Rodriguez, filed two state ethics complaint against Valdes, one involving free child care for her grandchild and the other concerning a district computer purchase that involved a campaign donor. The district defended its actions in both situations, saying nothing improper happened in the case of the day care and that the computer purchase saved the taxpayers money.
Critics of Valdes also picked up on the fact that more than $12,000 of her 2016 campaign account – close to one third – came from businesses and individuals involved in charter schools. As charter schools seldom hire union labor and compete with government-run districts for students and funding, their growth is a sore spot for the unions. Hearing about Valdes' plans on Monday, union officer John Perry tweeted: "All hands on deck to support Michael Alvarez for the State House seat!!!"
Candidates for the District 1 seat that Valdes will vacate have until June 22 to qualify, the elections office said. The winner will serve two years, with another election for a four-year term in 2020.
Person, now a candidate in District 6, said he has not decided if he will jump to the District 1 race.
"We're taking input from supporters, from community members, from employees in the school district and we haven't made a decision," he said Monday. "We see that running in District 1 could be a good option for us. Weighing our options or remaining in District 6… whichever we decide to do, we feel comfortable we'll qualify for June 22."